The Chrysalis: New Excerpt

The Chrysalis

Brendan Deneen

September 4, 2018

Spawned by Brendan Deneen’s own experiences relocating to a New Jersey suburb with his young family, The Chrysalis combines chills, thrills, and a literal monster in the basement with commentary on love, marriage, and impending parenthood.

Welcome to the dark side of suburbia.

Barely employed millennials Tom and Jenny Decker have to grow up fast when they lose their cheap Manhattan apartment. Leaving “the city” is hard, but the blow is softened when they stumble upon a surprisingly affordable house in the suburbs.

For Tom, the bills, the mortgage, and Jenny’s unexpected pregnancy add up to terror. He’s not ready for this kind of responsibility.

Then he finds the thing in the basement. It makes him feel like a winner even as it scrambles his senses. A new job soon has him raking in the big bucks―enough that Jenny can start making her entrepreneurial dreams come true.

The Deckers’ dream home conceals more than one deadly secret. As Tom’s obsession with the basement grows, Jenny realizes that to save her family, she must expose everything. Before it destroys them all.

No one ever really wants to grow up … but sometimes behaving like an adult is the only way to survive.

MONTH ONE

Tom Decker looked haunted.

He stared at himself in the bathroom mirror, the weak light from the fluorescent bulb pulsing down on him as he attempted not to puke his guts out. Jenny was asleep in what passed as their small bedroom, cut off from the rest of the apartment by a flimsy room divider, legs tangled up in the whatever-thread-count cotton sheets they’d received from some cousin for their wedding a year earlier. Even though Tom had shut the door, he heard her heavy breathing through the thin walls. His long, greasy hair hung in his eyes, but he could still see himself—and he looked like shit. It was 2 P.M. on a rainy Saturday afternoon. Or was it Sunday? He honestly had no idea.

Racked by a violent cough, he spat, then ran the water to wash away the evidence. How many cigarettes had he smoked the night before? He felt even sicker just thinking about it. He really needed to quit. Then again, he’d been telling himself that for years. Ever since he was a teen and had started sneaking butts from his dad’s never-ending packs. His father had died from lung cancer. It’d been ugly at the end. Tom blinked and shook away the memories of the man’s sallow face, refocusing on the present. On the far different life he was trying to create for himself in New York City, away from his past.

He and Jenny had closed the dingy Alphabet City bar yet again, an easy task since he worked there most nights as the sole bartender. Easy to lock the door at 4 A.M. and stay inside with a few customer-friends and his wife and drink a couple more before he finally kicked everyone out.

It wasn’t unusual for Tom and Jenny to stumble the few blocks to their apartment while the sun was coming up, to pass shocked, offended, or disgusted neighbors heading out for early-morning activities. The couple would laugh guiltily as they tripped up the stairs and collapsed into bed, sometimes too drunk to fuck, sometimes not.

Last night he’d switched from beer to bourbon a little after midnight, a rookie mistake. Now his head was pounding and his stomach was a gurgling mess, but he prided himself on throwing up as seldom as possible. Plus, he was a loud puker, raging-lunatic loud, embarrassingly loud, and he didn’t want to wake Jenny.

Leaning over, Tom splashed water onto his unshaven face. It was a crapshoot at any given moment whether their tiny apartment would have hot water, but right now he welcomed the feel of the icy-cold liquid; it tamped down the nausea. How much sleep had he gotten? He didn’t have a clue, but it felt as though he’d slept for about twenty minutes.

“Tom…,” Jenny called softly from the bedroom.

He pushed his straggly hair up and out of his eyes, exhaled, and blinked several times. The water droplets on his face, through his blurred vision, gave him an almost alien look. He smiled at himself without any real mirth and wiped the water away before shutting off the light, opening the door, and returning to his bed and his wife.

*   *   *

Jenny Decker sat at the dining room table and watched her husband through bloodshot eyes. Their apartment was a glorified studio, so calling the tiny piece of furniture a “dining room table” was a stretch, but they’d done their best to create areas that replicated the spaces of a larger home. Since this table was in the designated “dining room,” it was the dining room table.

Rain beat against the nearby “living room” windows, making Jenny feel even sleepier. Shadows danced on the exposed brick above the small, nonfunctional fireplace.

The coffee that she was trying to suck down should have been delicious, especially considering how much sugar she’d dumped into it, but her hangover was bad enough that the heat flowing down her throat and into her stomach was all that mattered.

Tom looked as bad as she felt. He had that faraway expression on his face that told her he was trying not to throw up. He was playing with his Zippo, a habit she loved and hated at the same time. She loved the sound the lighter made but hated how much her husband smoked. Her grandfather, a colossally heavy smoker, had died from lung cancer when she was twelve. It was one of the things she and Tom had bonded over when they first met.

Still, the deaths of his father and her grandfather weren’t enough to get him to quit smoking, and eventually he gently asked her to stop berating him about it, explaining that he needed to do it on his own schedule. She no longer brought it up, but it broke her heart every time he lit up.

Across the table from her, though pale and sickly, Tom still looked good to her, with his crown of dark, shoulder-length hair and ratty white T-shirt, his dark tattoos peeking out of the sleeves. She smiled at the sight.

It had taken them a little while to figure out that it was Sunday, which sucked because it meant she had to work the next day. But at least Tom had the night off. It was pouring rain out, so Jenny took solace in the fact that after drinking coffee and picking at the stale bagels that had been in the cupboard for at least two days too many, she and Tom would snuggle down on the couch and watch bad TV on their unintentionally stolen cable. When they’d moved in a couple of years earlier, they found what was clearly an antenna wire sticking out of the wall facing the street. Was it their fault that when they plugged it into their TV, they had almost every channel known to humanity?

Tom caught her looking at him and gave Jenny that crooked grin she’d first noticed a little over three years earlier, when he’d been tending bar at a coworker’s going-away party in the same Alphabet City dive bar where he still worked. That was the first time she’d stayed at any bar after closing time. Tom’s lips had tasted so good that night.

They’d dated for only a year before he proposed, getting down on bended knee at a restaurant, embarrassing and exhilarating her at the same time. He had said the most amazing things in that moment, things she had always wanted to hear from a man. He seemed to understand her perfectly. She had gotten down onto the floor with him, whispered yes, and hugged him with a fervor that surprised even her. The restaurant’s other patrons applauded, and someone sent over a bottle of champagne. They never found out who had done it.

“Hey,” he said softly, bringing her back to the present.

“Hey, what?” she answered, mock serious.

“I love you,” he whispered.

“I love you, too, baby.”

*   *   *

Monday morning was a little more forgiving.

Jenny was up early, as usual on a weekday, and had left for work before Tom woke up. He hated when he missed her getting ready. Watching her slip back into their bedroom after a 6 A.M. shower, pulling on her underwear and bra. Pretending she didn’t know he was watching as she pulled her long dirty-blond hair into a ponytail and put on the designer track suit with that stupid corporate logo, which should have looked horrible but somehow made her even hotter than usual.

He often tried to coax her back into bed but failed almost every time. She was way too dedicated to her work to let some quick morning sex jeopardize her job, no matter how good it was. Tom didn’t understand that kind of dedication to a nine-to-five job but respected it nonetheless. So he contented himself by watching her suit up for her day as a personal trainer to a bunch of douchebag investment bankers.

By the time he got up at nine thirty that Monday, Jenny had probably been at that fancy basement gym inside the Swiss investment bank for more than an hour. As if missing her morning routine wasn’t bad enough, his hangover from the previous day was still lingering.

Fuck, he thought, climbing out of bed and making his way to the bathroom. I must be getting old.

Still, he had nearly a whole day in front of him, before he had to clock in at the bar, and could spend the time painting. He’d won awards in high school for his work and had dreamed of moving to New York City and taking the art world by storm. His teachers had told him he was destined for greatness, and he’d believed them.

What an idiot, he thought.

Jenny kept telling him not to give up. She loved his art. She believed in him. These days, he painted for her more than for himself, yet he still dreamed of somehow striking it rich through his art. Of giving Jenny the kind of life she deserved.

He would do anything for her. He would give up anything.

*   *   *

Jenny knew the old dude was looking at her ass.

He came down to the gym almost every day but barely worked out. Jenny suspected it was just a ploy so he could watch her while she guided his stretches and half-baked attempts at weight training. Still, the guy was a senior vice president in Mergers and Acquisitions, so if he got his rocks off by checking out her chest and backside for a few minutes each morning, so be it. So long as he kept his wrinkled old hands to himself and her modest check cleared each week.

After the perv finished his session and hobbled off to the locker room, Jenny made her way to the front desk, where her manager, Sean, was typing away at the computer. A short redhead, he was seriously jacked for his size, and was generally nice, though sometimes he acted as if he were saving lives, not catering to a bunch of entitled 1 percenters.

“Hi, Sean,” she said, forcing a smile. He was constantly telling her to smile. “I’m done with—”

“One sec,” he mumbled, fingers blazing over the keyboard, updating his client database. Sean loved his database and labored over it for hours every day. Jenny kept the smile plastered on her face while attempting not to stare at the prominent, mildly disgusting veins that traversed his forearms.

“Oooo-kay … what’s up, Jennifer?” he said, sounding distracted. He glanced at her for only a second before looking back at the computer.

Since Jenny’s grandfather had died, Sean was the only person who called her Jennifer, and she hated it. But he was her boss, so, much like the ogling banker, he got a pass.

“I’m done a little early with Mr. Schrum. Is there anything you want me to do, or should I go on break?”

“Let’s see … Yeah, if you could mop the women’s locker room, that would be super-helpful. Apparently, Mrs. Griffin had a little accident in there. At least that’s what I’m told. I don’t even wanna know!”

He laughed at his own joke without looking up, and Jenny laughed along through clenched teeth. It wasn’t her job to clean anything—the building had custodians for that kind of thing—but she was in a good mood, so she let it go. After all, how bad a mess could it be?

*   *   *

Tom’s art studio sucked.

In fact, calling it an “art studio” wasn’t even close to accurate. Every once in a while, he’d retrieve a stack of newspapers from their building’s garbage/recycling area, spread them on the floor of the apartment’s tiny kitchenette, then set up his easel and stare at a blank canvas, waiting for inspiration. Technically, there was more space in the dining room or the living room or possibly even the tiny bedroom, but Tom liked how the light filtered in through the small window above the sink. It faced an adjoining apartment building, but the reflection of the sun against their neighbor’s always-shaded window was often dizzyingly beautiful and inspiring.

Today? Not so much.

Tom’s head still throbbed from Saturday’s drinking. He held the paintbrush in his slightly trembling hand but couldn’t figure out where to start, or even which color he wanted to start with. Honestly, he just wanted to go back to sleep. But if Jenny came home and found him in bed, he knew she’d be silently disappointed in him. Hell, he’d be disappointed in himself.

Maybe if he cracked a beer …

The blaring of his cell phone made him jump and drop the paintbrush onto the newspaper-covered floor. He laughed at himself, surprised at how on edge he was, then muttered, “Fuck…” The phone was on the couch, where he’d zoned out for an hour or so after dragging his ass out of bed. He caught the call on the last ring.

“What’s up, Kev?” he said after a glance at the screen. He headed for the living room window, which led to the fire escape and a much-needed cigarette.

Kevin Jenkins was Tom’s best friend, had been since they met in elementary school back in their tiny Pennsylvania town. They’d stayed in touch after high school graduation, no matter how much distance separated them, but these days, even living in the same city, they didn’t hang out or talk as much as they used to. Kevin’s bullshit corporate sales job, the kind of work they both used to mock, kept him far too busy, especially after a recent promotion.

“I’m surprised you’re awake,” Kevin said, the slight echo indicating that he was on his headset, something Tom also made fun of.

“Of course I’m awake,” Tom answered. “Wait, what time is it?”

Kevin laughed but Tom pulled the phone away from his head and looked—11:42 A.M. At least it was still morning.

“When are we hanging out, man?” Kevin asked. Tom could hear the computer keys clicking in the background while they talked, another thing he found annoying about his friend’s work habits.

Shit, he thought, I’m in an awful mood. He squeezed himself through the open window and sat down on the rusted metal fire escape, feeling the post-rain wind push through his hair. He fished the last cigarette from a crumpled pack, cupped it in one hand, and lit it with his Zippo. He gently tossed the lighter and the empty cigarette pack back through the window, onto the couch.

Four stories below, his fellow New Yorkers milled about, cabbies honking and cursing at each other. The streets glimmered with slowly drying rainwater. He suddenly felt inspired, knew which color he was going to use to begin his painting. Gray was always a good way to start.

“What are you talking about?” Tom said. He inhaled deeply; smoke trickled out of his mouth and nose as he continued, “You can come drink for free at my bar anytime you want. You know that.”

“Ahh, fuck that. I wanna go out, man. You know, to someplace that’s not a dive. No offense. Someplace where I’m not the only black guy and you’re not walking away every five minutes and I can talk to real women, not underage NYU students or barflies with three teeth.”

Tom laughed and took another deep puff. Kevin had a fair point.

“Okay, fine. I’ll talk to Jenny and we’ll figure out a date. Or I’ll come alone the next time she makes plans with Victoria. I’d rather hang out with you anyway. I’ll text you soon to set it up.”

“Yeah yeah yeah, that’s what you said a month ago. I told you you were gonna get boring when you got married.”

“Fuck. You.” Tom smiled and tapped the cigarette, watching the ash float off into the wind before dispersing completely. He observed the people below entering and leaving buildings, like insects. The painting was continuing to come together in his mind.

“Ha, okay,” Kevin said, the sound of typing increasing. “Well, let me know. And remember, anytime you want a real job, I could always use a new sales associate.”

“No way,” Tom answered, looking up into the sky and letting the sun temporarily blind him. “Never. Not in a million years.”

*   *   *

Jenny choked down the last of her nine-dollar beer, feeling her stomach revolt.

That first drink after a weekend of intense boozing was always the toughest, but she could already feel the lingering hangover starting to recede. Her older sister, Victoria, stared at her with a blank expression. Blank but somehow deeply judgmental. She had barely touched her own drink. Of course.

“Lookin’ a little green around the gills there, Jen,” Victoria said, smiling. Not a mean smile, Jenny conceded, but sure as hell not a nice one either.

“Ah, you know, the perks of being married to a bartender.”

Victoria raised her eyebrows at this remark and sipped daintily at her drink, some fruit-infused concoction that cost almost twice as much as the beer. “Speaking of which, how’s his ‘art’ going?”

Hearing the quotation marks, Jenny bit back the urge to unleash an obscenity-laced retort. She was in no mood to hear her sister trash her husband. “Good, actually. He’s probably painting right now. He loves working when the sun comes out right after it rains.”

“Mm-hm.”

“How’s Lakshmi?” Jenny asked quickly, both of them knowing it was a loaded question. Lakshmi, Victoria’s younger wife, was always moving from one entrepreneurial idea to the next, with Victoria usually acting as her primary investor. So far, nothing had panned out.

Jenny’s older sister squirmed in her expensive business suit. “She’s doing amazing, thanks. She has this new diet regimen that she created. It’s pretty groundbreaking. I think it would make a fantastic book. She was actually hoping she could talk to you about it.”

“Well,” Jenny said, cringing inside, “I mean, yeah, I’m a personal trainer, but I don’t think I’m any kind of diet expert. Maybe I can—”

Victoria laughed—that loud, bitchy laugh Jenny had hated her whole life. It usually preceded some comment that made her want to cry or punch her sister in the mouth or both.

“Oh, no, honey, not for diet advice. Obviously. In case someone you train at the bank might be interested in investing. You know, to pay for one of those New York Times–bestselling ghostwriters or something.”

Obviously? Fucking obviously?

Jenny was about to unload on Victoria when their waitress reappeared. Saved by the bell, sis.

“Can I get you ladies another round?”

“No, thank you. I think just the ch—” Victoria started.

“I’ll take a shot of whiskey and another beer, and then she’ll take the check,” Jenny interrupted.

The waitress clearly got the signal because she backed away without another word. Victoria raised her eyebrows at her sister again.

“How’s work?” Jenny said, biting down on each word.

At first, Victoria seemed ready for a standoff, but then she sighed and looked away. Jenny saw the black circles under her eyes, and felt bad. She knew how hard Victoria worked, knew how much she had to fight to be taken seriously at her high-pressure, extremely high-paying marketing job, where most of the other executives were older men. Victoria had overcome a lot of sexism and general disdain to get where she was. She was tough, yes, maybe sometimes downright mean, but she was a strong woman, a great role model for a younger sister, and Jenny respected the hell out of her. Not that she’d readily admit it.

“Oh, you know,” her sister said, almost dreamily. “Never enough hours in the day. Or night. Lakshmi says I work too much. That I need to relax more. That we need to take more vacations. Like I have time for any of that. How about you? How’s the gym?”

“Oh, you know,” echoed Jenny with a grin, and saw Victoria’s expression soften. They’d fought constantly growing up, and still did often, but were fundamentally a tight unit, especially when dealing with their aging, increasingly obnoxious parents. “Nothing better than having a ninety-year-old corpse trying to paw your tits with his zombie hands.” Jenny held up her arms like the undead and swiped at her sister’s chest, and Victoria burst out laughing in a rare moment of pure emotion. Flooded with affection, Jenny laughed, too.

“I needed that,” Victoria said.

The waitress returned with the shot and the beer. Jenny pounded the former and chased it with a huge gulp of the latter while her sister shook her head. But there was still a smile on her face.

*   *   *

Jenny walked into her apartment building vestibule, tripping slightly on the uneven floor—she was nowhere near as drunk as she’d been two nights earlier, but certainly wasn’t sober. She’d convinced Victoria to stay and have a couple more drinks, then splurged for a cab after hugging her sister goodbye—two things she rarely did. Both felt great.

Approaching the row of small metal mailboxes built into the far wall, she tried to ignore the large cockroach she could see scuttling across the floor out of the corner of her eye. The building was fairly clean, especially for Alphabet City, but the dark, smelly garbage room was directly across from the mailboxes, and you could never really get away from the vermin in New York City. Shortly after she and Tom moved in, they’d heard scratching sounds in the walls and realized they had mice. They’d set out glue traps, and to this day Tom still refused to tell her how he’d disposed of the writhing, still-breathing, terrified rodents. He’d always looked pale and upset afterwards. He hated killing anything.

It was a struggle to maneuver the tiny key into the lock of their mailbox, but Jenny eventually succeeded, opening the metal door with a clang. There was rarely anything good in there—once in a while an envelope from her father, full of news clippings and comic strips from their hometown paper in Upstate New York. Otherwise, all they got were bills and junk mail.

As she riffled through the envelopes, she came upon one that wasn’t junk or a bill or a letter from her dad: something from the building’s management firm. Probably about renewing their lease, which was expiring soon. She hoped the rent wasn’t going up too much. A year earlier, around the time they were shelling out money for their wedding, it had jumped up a hundred dollars a month. Which was doable, but they’d had to cut back on booze and eating out, two of their absolute favorite things.

Leaning against the wall, cradling her purse in the crook of her elbow, Jenny ripped open the envelope and scanned the letter. She cocked her head in confusion and then read it again, more slowly, forcing her eyes to focus through the haze of alcohol.

“No … no … no…,” she repeated as she slid down the wall, landing on her ass, reading the letter for a third time. Finally, she closed her eyes and let out a shaky breath. The letter slipped from her fingers and fell to the floor as her eyes filled with tears.

“Fuck…,” she whispered.

*   *   *

Copyright © 2018 Brendan Deneen.

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